Following his meetings “with friends and skeptics" on three continents from Argentina to Germany during his week-long tour, President Volodymyr Zelensky met with Ukrainian and international journalists to sum up the outgoing year of the big war.
For two hours Zelensky answered questions about mobilization, Kyiv’s efforts to free Ukrainian military and civilian prisoners of Russia and military objectives for 2024, the stalled billions in US and EU aid, Poland and Israel, his relations with AFU Chief Commander Zaluzhny and his meeting with Hungary’s Premier Orbán.
Many journalists, many questions
Invited to the Ukrainian leader’s press conference in Kyiv were representatives from over 100 Ukrainian and international media, according to his press secretary Serhiy Nikiforov who arrived at the hotel InterContinental around 5 p.m. He greeted the journalists who had been waiting for almost 100 minutes. He asked them how they were disposed. They answered, “Not aggressively.”
20 minutes later, Mykhailo Podoliak, adviser to Andriy Yermak, the President’s Office head, walked into the hall. He drew little attention, though. At 6 p.m. sharp, Yermak walked in, followed by the President.
On the main achievements
Zelensky looked concentrated. After thanks to the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU), he told the press conference about Ukraine’s achievements in the outgoing year, singling out the historic decision to open EU accession talks with Ukraine. The accent on this topic was highlighted by the picture that appeared on the big screen the moment Zelensky entered.
He mentioned Ukraine’s success in the Black Sea, stressed that in spite of the challenges “this winter is different” and “we are growing more powerful each month” and announced, without divulging how many, several new Patriot systems that “will strengthen our air defense.”
As one more “powerful victory” in 2023, Zelensky cited Ukraine’s GDP growth by 5 percent and a 5.6 percent decrease in inflation, which “is noted by all partners.”
Journalists, however, were more interested in internal issues, including mobilization.
On additional mobilization
The President told the press conference about his meeting with AFU Commander-in-Chief Valeriy Zaluzhny and Chief of General Staff Serhiy Shaptala and said that the military leadership “proposed to mobilize an additional 450,000-500,000 people.” He stressed that this is a very serious figure and said that he would like to hear “more arguments” in support of this proposal.
According to the President, the mobilization of so many people would cost the state an additional Hr.500 billion ($13.5 billion). “As the president of Ukraine and the one who spends a lot of time looking for sources of any financial support for Ukraine, I need clarity from the prime minister and the finance ministry: I need to know where to get this money from,” Zelensky replied.
To a question about the proposed mobilization of men under 27 and women Zelensky said, “As to women, no. As to 25-year-olds, I will agree to that if it is substantiated. I already see that it is needed.”
On the US aid package and €50 bn from the EU
“[US] aid is now very much needed... I think it will arrive very soon,” said Zelensky. “We are working very hard on it. I am confident that the United States will not betray us and that everything we have agreed on with the US will be fulfilled.”
He assured journalists that he had “come to terms with Biden and both parties,” and that it is now only a matter of when. “They know we are looking forward to this aid, they know where it will go, they know what impacts postponements have, they know that our insistence is not spurious – we need this aid for our defense, for our economy, for the Ukrainian people's resilience... We’ll see.”
Zelensky also sounded confident that Ukraine would finally get the €50 billion in aid from the EU blocked by Hungary's veto: “The decision will be made in the nearest time, when they [EU leaders] meet. There only remain some organizational issues... And no one will get in the way. We already have mechanisms... Even if one [EU] country objects, the rest will find other instruments for Ukraine to receive this fifty billion.”
On the situation at the front and Ukraine's military strategy for 2024
“Russia has achieved none of its goals in 2023. What ‘three days’? It’s been two years!” Zelensky said emphatically.
“No, I don't think so. We have been in worse situations. We were occupied almost entirely – at least the central regions of our state [were occupied] with infrastructure facilities, logistics, motor and railroads, food deliveries, economy... We were in a complete blockade and we withstood. The people, God, partners – I don’t know who helped us more... There is always a risk, we are all just people. But we must live in Ukraine, strongly believe and fight – at least not to feel ashamed afterwards.”
Zelensky declined to disclose details of war plans for 2024: “I can’t disclose our goals to you. We had difficulties in the south because everybody talked about our goals... Excuse me... but I can't tell you, I can’t give you a single detail of our counteroffensive or defensive actions planned for next year.”
On relations with Poland
The importance of relations with Poland at the press conference was marked, in particular, by the fact that two Polish mass media were given the opportunity to ask questions.
“Even when everyone in Ukraine saw that we had a conflict at the leadership level, Ukrainians began to defend you – not me, even though I was defending their interests!” Zelensky emotionally replied to Polish journalists.
In general, in his answers regarding relations with Poland, Zelensky emphasized the “brotherhood” of the Ukrainian and Polish peoples and “historical” gratitude on the part of Ukraine, recalled his fruitful visits to Poland together with First Lady Olena Zelenska... He did not forget to remind that currently "Ukrainians protect Poland with their lives." "We defend your independence,” he said.
Zelensky spoke optimistically about the prospects for improving relations with the key neighbor, summing up his meeting with the newly elected Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk last week: “I believe that the new government will unblock the border. This blockade is artificial. We are ready for people in Poland not to suffer any losses, but we cannot politicize the issue of grain when everything is blocked.”
The president recalled the conditions under which Polish transporters began blocking the border with Ukraine: “At that time, we did not have the Black Sea corridor through which we could export grain. We had problems with Slovakia and Hungary... We did not have an opportunity for a compromise on the export of grain. We only asked to export it.”
According to Zelensky, Ukraine eventually found other ways to transport its grain, while Poland suffered financial losses: “Poland has lost financially. We have built a railroad corridor through Moldova and Romania. We have built a corridor across the Black Sea - and there were fewer exports through Poland. Did we want that? No.”
Despite all the difficulties in interstate relations and “conflict at the level of leaders,” “Ukrainians began to protect you, not me, although I protected their interests,” he told a Polish journalist.
On corruption among high officials
Responding to the question of UP journalist Mykhailo Tkach about corruption and enrichment of officials during the war, Zelensky nervously noted that during the war, all statesmen should be moral role models, but unfortunately, there is no such thing in Ukraine now.
“He [the deputy] is no different from a businessman who sets off fireworks on his birthday when the military is at war. I do not share these people. I believe that yes, all statesmen should be a moral example. Unfortunately, there is none. No, I can dissolve them, because then there will be elections, and elections cannot be held during a war,” he said.
On Ukrainian UAVs
“I am positive about increasing the production of drones and establishing special units. There should be infrastructure for drone operation, the best one, not Soviet, but very, very simple to use very quickly... We will get over logistics. Our warriors will receive domestic drones for their brigades,” the president said.
“As for output, we will produce one million drones next year. We will make a million. We will do everything to make it happen. That’s how it will be,” Zelensky promised.
On relations with Hungary and the conversation with Orbán
“I wish Orbán were from Latin America” is probably Zelensky’s best quote about Orbán so far, which describes the current state of relations between Ukraine and Hungary. The president mentioned the Hungarian leader while talking about his successful visit to Argentina and bilateral meetings with the leaders of a number of Latin American countries.
Zelensky said that he had never discussed a ceasefire, a concessions in the war with Russia or his dialogue with Putin with the Hungarian official.
“Maybe he raised this issue with his friends or EU leaders, or somewhere abroad, maybe in the United States... There was something like that in his speech. But for me it's a bit strange, because sometimes his politics are not very friendly to us, and he knows this and heard this from me,” Zelensky stated.
When asked about a short conversation with Orbán in the Argentine parliament, he replied he had many questions to the Hungarian prime minister, including those about the lack of support for Ukraine and the reluctance to organize a bilateral meeting. However, he did not receive answers to any of them.
“I think we could find a diplomatic solution, and our parties will work on it... In any case, we are neighboring countries,” Zelensky said.
On relations with Zaluzhny
“I have a working relationship with Zaluzhny. He is responsible for the result on the battlefield,” said Zelensky. This is how he first commented on rumors about strained relations with the Chief Commander of the Armed Forces.
When asked about the plans to dismiss Zaluzhny, he told he was expecting a number of clear decisions from the military leadership of Ukraine: “There is a strategy – I am waiting for results and details.”
The president explained that now there is no place for any personal interests: “I do not develop difficulties in personal relationships. The state of Ukraine is not about personal interests. The main thing is the result – every day, in all positions, and responsibility for my work... To be the commander-in-chief is an honor, to be the president is an honor. I only have a personal relationship with my wife,” Zelensky said.
On the Global Peace Summit and Russia’s possible peace proposals
Zelensky announced that the fourth meeting of security and political advisors regarding the Ukrainian Peace Formula would be held within the framework of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in January.
“We will work to ensure that this meeting gathers representatives of all continents, including the Global South. The last five points of the Peace Formula will be worked out at this meeting. The first five points were considered by advisers at the previous meeting in Malta at the end of October,” he said.
According to Zelensky, after the fourth round Kyiv will work on organizing the first inaugural summit at the level of state leaders – the Global Peace Summit. During the event, an agreement between the countries on the fundamental provisions, which will be embodied in the corresponding document, will be developed. After the document is adopted by all states, it can be transferred to the representatives of the Russian Federation.
“If Russia is ready to accept that document, it will indicate that the issue of negotiations is relevant. Today it is not relevant. I don't see any request from Russia, I don't see it in their actions. I only see arrogance and murder in their rhetoric," explained the head of state.
Zelensky said that all members of his family are in Ukraine: “My son goes to school and my daughter to the university. I’m glad they’re all here – they made their choice.”
The press conference on the results of 2023 lasted only two hours, but at the end of the event the head of state looked quite tired, losing the track of the conversation. Not only journalists, but also the organizers noticed this.
At the end of the conference, Zelensky quickly left the hall, while media representatives had the opportunity to talk with his press secretary and advisor Mykhailo Podoliak for some time.
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